Gold foil illustration of stars


The Art of Dwelling on the Past

Your life is written in indelible ink. There’s no going back to erase the past, tweak your mistakes, or fill in missed opportunities. When the moment’s over, your fate is sealed. But if you look closer, the ink never really dries on any of your experiences. They can change their meaning the longer you look at them.

It’s often said that there’s nothing to be gained in looking backward. But there are ways of thinking about the past that aren’t just nostalgia or regret; a kind of questioning that can allow fresh context to trickle in over the years, slowly filling out the picture like an inkblot painting, right there in front of you.

You can watch as a hero shrinks into someone deeply troubled, while a villain might begin to seem utterly relatable. A few peripheral characters might turn out to have been central to your story all along. A golden age can take on a darker edge, exposing cracks in a relationship you once thought was perfect. A wasted year can turn out to have been a shrewd investment, vital to your eventual success. The end of the world can be bargained down to a pivot point to something better. And a glancing wound from years ago might still be bleeding under the surface, having hurt you in ways that affect your entire life.

Time can even change your image of who you are. You may turn out to have been lucky when you thought you were cursed, cringeworthy when you thought you were cool, flawed when you thought you were quirky, cared for when you thought you were alone.

Maybe it’s not so bad to dwell on the past, as long as it brings you closer to the truth. If nothing else, it’s a way to push back against the oversimplification of time. Trying to keep a memory alive, as something more than just a caricature of itself.

Maybe we should think of memory itself as an art form, in which the real work begins as soon as the paint hits the canvas. And a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.

From klecksography, which is the art of making images from inkblots, famously used in Rorschach psychoanalytic tests. Interpreting their ambiguity is thought to illuminate the subconscious of the patient. Pronounced “kleks-ohs.”